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Hey, That's Not What Happened!

One of my favorite corporate storytelling modes is the “What if” story. This is essentially telling a story with a known ending, and changing the events so that the resolution is different. Few other storytelling techniques guarantee such a return of attendee attention!

I used this method some months ago in a session with colleagues in the corporate learning industry. Many learning suppliers were struggling at that time as companies looked for home-grown solutions instead of adding more figures to the cost side of the budget.

Anyhow, I was talking about a major supplier who provided learning modules to many of the companies in attendance…and I put them out of business. Immediately, I could see that a few folks who were checking smartphone messages snapped back to attention. Their look read, “Huh? What did he just say?”

For those who were already actively engaged, the expressions ranged from individual frowns to exchanged glances with other attendees. I continued as if I had not noticed any reactions, explaining alternatives that were being adopted by some companies as critical learning content was lost.

To say that I now had everyone’s attention was an understatement. There was some skepticism, but most of my audience was wondering why they hadn’t heard of this, and what they would do next. Some hands were twitching by the side, waiting to acknowledge a question…even though the Q & A time hadn’t yet arrived.

At this point, I took pity on my audience and admitted that they had been listening to a “What if” scenario. There was instant relief. The trick, of course, was to keep them on my side before they started to think that I had heartlessly duped them.

“Stop and consider for a moment the reality of what you were considering. At a time when learning budgets are dropping, what would be the result on our individual operations if a major resource such as ***** had to close its doors? In other words, are there budgets that we can’t afford to cut, and how do we make the argument to those outside of our field that they need to be maintained?”

The remainder of the talk was about the elements that needed to go into those arguments…and time was allotted for brainstorming. In all, it was a most effective presentation.

Book writers and screenplay writers have been playing with revisionist history for a long time. They know the value of keeping their audience thinking, “What would I do in this situation?” or “What would the world be like now if this had happened?”

There are rules when we do this in the corporate storytelling field. Unlike movies or books, it should never be done merely for entertainment value. It is not that attendees at corporate meetings don’t want to be entertained, but they are so busy that they need to see something of value in the offering. Entertainment by itself is best left for off-hours.

Tie the “What if” into a situation the audience can understand. The two main reasons for taking this approach are either to persuade them that the point you are making is valid, or to introduce a brainstorming session. “What if” stories are also great for introducing critical thinking exercises.

Finally, never make the “What if” story mean-spirited…or, as the phrase goes, “Just to prove a point.” One of the worst uses I’ve seen of this method was a presenter who was trying to teach career survival skills. His story involved the company closing its doors…a fear that was already instilled in much of the audience. Instead of engaging the audience in useful contemplation, they wanted to know what news he had that they didn’t…and when they learned it was only a technique employed to stir emotions, they turned off the remainder of his presentation.

On the plus side, he wasn’t lynched.

“What if” stories can be an excellent tool for engaging attention. Just remember to use them carefully and respectfully. When you do, the reward can be impressive.

Thank you for reading.